UNITED STATES, BOSTON
Indignity, and the will to keep going
An article published in 2016 in the Boston Globe
By correspondent Carol Steinberg
Carol Steinberg publishes her articles at the Boston Globe. This article was published in 2017 and republished in October 2021.
What has changed in air travel today? What anxiety levels are travelers in wheelchairs coping with today? Feel free to comment on this article in the comment section below.
“Female assist!” the male TSA agent bellows over my head.
Red-faced but forcing transcendence, as streams of other travelers flow past me through the scanner and onto their gates, I wait in my wheelchair for the pat down.
My husband and daughter have already taken off their shoes and belts, and sent them along with our carry-ons down the conveyor belt. They wait for me on the other side. I sense my husband’s increasing anxiety as minutes pass without the appearance of the female agent.
As I sit stalled in frustration while everyone rushes about, I tell myself that Female Assist will appear soon enough, and we will get to our gate well before it is time to board for Barcelona.
We have been here before. After what appears to be but isn’t really a long wait, a tall crew-cutted woman arrives and gruffly inquires, “Do you want to go to a private room or should we do it out here?”
“Out here is fine,” I say quietly.
Being unable to walk through the scanner draws enough attention. If I insist on being moved to a private space, I fear I will attract more. Besides, there’s no reason for a private room since, at 61, I’ve left modesty far behind.
In a military voice, she tells me everything she’s going to do before she does it: “First, I will pat around your breasts with the back of my hands, then under and over your arms. You are able to put your arms out to the sides?
Then, I will pat your back — you can lean forward? Then, I will pat your thighs up to the groin area.
I nod, wondering if she really thinks I have a bomb stuffed under my seat cushion as an offering for when I go to join ISIS. Once she’s convinced I am harmless, we make our way to our gate to wait for me to be the focus once again.
The aisle chair
At the gate, we approach the airline staff every 10 minutes seeking assurance that the message about my need for an aisle chair has been transmitted. The “aisle chair” is the extra narrow wheelchair required to take me to my seat, since a standard chair would be too wide for today’s airplane aisles.
When I made our ticket reservation months ago, I told the agent that I’d need one on every leg of our journey. He said he noted this in the computer. We know this guarantees nothing.
Too often in the past that message has failed to get through and we have had to wait for the aisle chair and watch, exasperated, as all the other passengers boarded the plane first. I am then pushed in the skinny chair through a crowd of impatient seated travelers, all staring at me.
Clearly bothered by our constant need for reassurance — but still perky — the airline person at the gate keeps checking the computer for us. We are finally convinced. This time the message came through. The aisle chair sits at the entrance of the plane. We can board with some degree of peace.
After wheeling me in my own chair down the ramp and approaching the aisle chair sitting outside the plane’s entrance, two airline employees start to put their arms around me. They want to lift me from one chair to the other.
If they position the chairs “kitty-corner” to each other I can transfer between them. I have to illustrate this with my hands. I transfer and I tell myself they’re impressed.
We figure out together how to buckle the three long seat belts that are needed to tightly strap me in, as required by law. Then they roll me over the lip at the plane entrance and down the long, narrow aisle to my seat.
My husband and daughter follow with our gear and we hope my own wheelchair is safely stored below. When we get to row 26, the flight attendant lifts the armrest of the airplane seat and I transfer over.
Getting ready for the seven-hour flight, I ask if the aisle chair is stored on board and if there’s a handicapped bathroom on this aircraft should I need it. She answers yes. A pleasant surprise as often neither is true.
Why endure the travails of travel?
Soon after I started using a wheelchair 12 years ago because of my multiple sclerosis, my husband and I decided to take a ferry from New London, Conn., to the Hamptons. We carefully called ahead to see if there was a boat that was wheelchair-accessible. “Certainly,” we were assured. “The 10 a.m. ferry has a wheelchair lift.” We got there on time. The ferry had a lift. It was broken.
Two burly men carried me up two flights of narrow iron stairs to the open deck of the boat. A young man in a wheelchair sat on the deck gazing peacefully out at the ocean. Shaking with anger, I interrupted his meditative state.
He responded quietly. “If I got mad every time this happened I wouldn’t go anywhere.”
The words of this young man are always with me. I’ve not totally adopted his degree of serenity. I carry anger with me all the time. Sometimes, I can keep it silenced and sometimes I cannot.
When I’m told that a restaurant is wheelchair accessible and arrive to find a stone step at the entrance, or that there is a portable ramp but the staff has no idea where it is when I get there, I deliver a tongue-lashing.
But I do try to go everywhere. This requires taking myself into the Zen state where I found the man on the ferry deck those years ago.
Inspired by the way he removed himself from the frustrating realities on the ground, and instead gazed out at the sea and limitless horizon, I try to lift myself out of each challenge and meditate on the rich experiences that await.
Carol Steinberg can be reached at email@example.com.
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